Two decades ago today, Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli, who at the time was steadily garnering both domestic and international praise for its magical and socially conscious animated films, released its most successful and most iconic tale of fantasy and adventure yet.
Spirited Away is the journey of ten-year-old Chihiro Ogino who, after moving to a new neighborhood with her parents, finds herself thrust into the world of kami, or spirits in Japanese Shinto folklore. She encounters a host of them in various shapes and intentions: a kind young boy named Haku; No-Face, a curious and faceless spirit; and even spirits made of soot from the fire.
But Chihiro’s entry into the spirit world is not without a price as she discovers her parents have been cursed and transformed into pigs by the witch Yubaba. She, together with Haku, venture deeper into the fantastical realms of the kami to save her parents and to come into terms with the ever-changing world around her.
At the time of its release, Spirited Away was the highest grossing film in Japanese cinema history accumulating over31.68 billion Japanese yen and even surpassing Ghibli’s previous record-holder, Princess Mononoke. Besides the overwhelming reception at the box office, the film was also recognized by prestigious award-giving bodies. It became the first, and to date the only, hand-drawn and non-English language film to win the Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards.
But while these are all great quantifiable achievements, there is more to the green and gold of Spirited Away.
Ghibli chief storyteller Hayao Miyazaki was inspired by his friend’s daughter (also the same age Chihiro) and wanted to tell a story about the youth experience, specifically young girls. “It was through observing the daughter of a friend that I realized there were no films out there for her, no films that directly spoke to her,” Miyazaki said in an early interview.
“With Spirited Away I wanted to say to them ‘don't worry, it will be all right in the end, there will be something for you’, not just in cinema, but also in everyday life. For that it was necessary to have a heroine who was an ordinary girl, not someone who could fly or do something impossible. Just a girl you can encounter anywhere in Japan.”
Indeed, the simplicity and human-ness of Chihiro was at the time an antithesis to the powerful and mighty characters of the films that ruled 2001 namely Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Miyazaki, in all his genius, went for the minority, the voices in the background, and crafted a story that anyone could relate to—because at one point we were all naïve, powerless kids!
More on Miyazaki’s genius, Spirited Away is also intricately laced with mature themes and commentary on human society, specifically the modernization of Japanese culture and along with it, the destruction of the environment. A good example would be when Haku was revealed to be the spirit of the Kohaku River and lost all memory because the actual river has been reclaimed for residential areas. These issues speak at the local but they reverberate universally as we continue to feel the changing times.
Now, twenty years later, Spirited Away still resonates with audiences of different ages and walks of life. Its iconic and lovingly hand-drawn animation is instantly recognizable by almost anyone who has been living on the Internet and even if you’re not, chances are you may have still come across No-Face in some crevasse of the web.
Studio Ghibli has since released a dozen more films after this, Miyazaki written a dozen more too and even coming out of retirement again. Still, the legacy of Chihiro's journey lives on in the hearts and minds of those who dare to dream of fantasy and adventure despite their youth. And that ultimately makes Spirited Away the calling card of Studio Ghibli for classic and wondrous animation, twenty years then and twenty years now.